KISSIMMEE, Fla. ― Hazel Bryant has spent 25 of her 35 years in Puerto Rico. She lives in Florida. She thinks Donald Trump’s words and deeds about the island show he’s a racist.
“Maybe he doesn’t have any use for the island anymore,” she says in a strip mall filled with Puerto Rican-owned businesses, her takeout lunch in hand. “He has failed as a president.”
Unfortunately for Democrats, she also does not vote.
“I don’t believe in presidents. I believe in my creator,” she says, nodding skyward. “Trump’s not my president.”
Even more unfortunately for Democrats, she is not alone.
In last year’s midterm elections, even as Trump railed on Puerto Rico’s government as corrupt and undeserving of any more federal disaster assistance for Hurricane Maria, only 47 percent of the state’s 206,000 registered voters who identified as having been born on the island actually turned out to cast ballots, according to an analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. Of those who registered for the first time in 2018 ― a cohort of 8,300 that included those who left the island in Maria’s aftermath ― that turnout rate was only 34 percent. In the Kissimmee precinct with the largest number of Puerto Rican natives who registered for the first time that year, only 20 of the 125 turned out: 16 percent.
In contrast, the overall turnout rate in Florida was 59 percent, and for non-Hispanic whites, it was 63 percent.
“Clearly there was a disconnect with the mobilization efforts to get these newly registered voters out to vote,” Smith says. “These are shockingly low turnout numbers.”
Democrats were hoping a strong Puerto Rican turnout would help return Bill Nelson to the U.S. Senate for a fourth term and put Andrew Gillum in Tallahassee’s governor’s mansion. But even during the campaign, activists and pollsters were warning that Democrats were not matching those “hopes” with sufficient work on the ground.
Fernand Amandi, with the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi, recalls the backlash he took after releasing a survey showing that then-governor, now-senator Rick Scott, the Republican, was actually receiving more support from Puerto Ricans than Nelson was. “They came down on me like a ton of bricks,” he says, adding that he still cannot wrap his head around why Democrats did not work harder to win that community’s vote. “I can’t explain insanity. This speaks to the systemic failure of the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee.”
Nearly a year later, Latino activists worry that Democrats are yet again failing to lay the groundwork to ensure a healthy turnout among the Puerto Rican community in the 2020 presidential election.
“It’s a gigantic opportunity,” says Alex Barrio, Alianza for Progress’ political director. “But I’ll tell you right now, not a single Democratic presidential candidate has reached out to us. None of them have come down here.”
We contribute to the nation. We serve in the military. We are citizens. To say that he’s not going to give more money or that we don’t earn that money is just not logical. Brian Dominguez, owner of Casa Borinquen restaurant in Pembroke Pines, Florida
Antipathy for Trump runs deep in Florida’s Puerto Rican community, be it in Kissimmee and Orlando in central Florida or Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida.
While Florida’s Cuban American population has been staunchly and famously Republican since the 1960s, most Floridians born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent align with Democrats and have done so for generations.
Trump’s inflammatory language about Mexicans during the 2016 campaign angered Latino groups all over the country. He received just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally, about the same as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, even though Romney’s opponent, former President Barack Obama, was far more popular with Latino groups than Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Since he began his presidency, Trump has done little to improve his standing with Latinos. He routinely refers to would-be migrants from Mexico or Central America who are seeking better lives or escaping violence in their home countries as criminals and drug traffickers. And since shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017, Trump began attacking Puerto Rican elected leaders, calling them corrupt and incompetent. He blamed the slowness of the recovery on the island’s financial problems and deteriorated electrical grid. He accused his political opponents of inventing an academic analysis finding that nearly 3,000 people had died during the storm and aftermath.
At the same time, Trump has gone out of his way to offer praise and unlimited support ― “FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama” ― to victims of natural disasters in Texas, Alabama and Florida, all states that voted for him in the 2016 election. (Puerto Rico, as a territorial possession, has no say in the presidential election.)
“It’s definitely unfair,” says Sam Diaz, a 55-year-old meat cutter from Puerto Rico as he waits for his order at a takeout pizza place in Kissimmee. “I don’t really know what his motive is, but it sounds like he doesn’t like Spanish people.”
Two-hundred miles south in heavily Puerto Rican Pembroke Pines, 26-year-old island native Amanda Diaz believes she has a pretty good idea about Trump’s motives.
“He’s a racist!” she says as she finishes up her meal at Casa Borinquen, a popular Puerto Rican lunch spot. “I think Trump is an asshole. Let’s just go straight right to it. There are people in Puerto Rico that still don’t have electricity. That should be the main priority.”
Brian Dominguez, the restaurant’s owner, finds Trump’s tone offensive. “We’re not illegal immigrants,” he says. “We contribute to the nation. We serve in the military. We are citizens. To say that he’s not going to give more money or that we don’t earn that money is just not logical.”
Translating that anger into votes, though, is another story, and for Florida Democrats, it means getting out from behind an eight ball that was put in front of them in the 1980s and 1990s.
That’s when Jeb Bush, son of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, became chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Republican Party and began a push to increase GOP registration in the state’s most populous region. A big part of that was to register newly naturalized Latino immigrants ― many of whom had fled persecution from left-wing governments and so were receptive to the party’s anti-communist message.
Bush took that focus statewide during his first run for governor in 1994, building an organization and fundraising apparatus for the Republican Party of Florida that remains largely intact two decades later.
Democrats, meanwhile, saw their fortunes move in the other direction. Many conservative and moderate Democrats left the party in the general realignment of southern white voters following the civil rights movement. Simultaneously, Lawton Chiles, the Florida icon who became governor in 1990, had never needed the state party for his own elections, and did not prioritize party-building.
The Florida Democratic Party has struggled with organization and finances ever since. Perhaps relatedly, Chiles was the last Democratic governor the state has elected.
Those structural problems have left the state party at a tremendous disadvantage in any number of areas, says Steve Schale, the Democratic consultant who led Obama’s successful efforts in the state in 2008 and 2012.
“Frankly, we’ve not done a good job in a lot of communities, not just the Puerto Rican community,” he says, pointing out that Democrats have seen a 560,000-registered-voter advantage at the end of Obama’s 2012 race drop to less than half of that today. “There’s not been a lot of money being spent consistently on voter registration.”
Particularly running against Scott, a multimillionaire whose political career has been notable for his willingness to spend prodigiously from his own personal fortune, Democrats have always faced difficult choices ― between spending on Spanish-language ads or organizing volunteers, for example ― while Scott has never had to choose, Schale says.
Both Democratic consultants and progressive activists acknowledge that the prospect of turning out Puerto Ricans displaced by the 2017 hurricane always faced major obstacles.
First, persuading those storm refugees to set aside worries about finding a house, a job, a good school for their children and instead pay attention to an election in a still strange home was never going to be easy.
“Their world just got turned upside down. Do you really think they’re going to prioritize voting?” says Adriana Rivera, Alianza’s communications director and herself a recent island transplant to Florida.
Even for those who did tune in and wanted to punish Trump for his words and actions, it was not necessarily obvious that Trump had anything to do with the midterm election. His name was not on the ballot, and the names of neither of the major parties on the mainland resemble those that dominate elections on the island, the Partido Nuevo Progresista and the Partido Popular Democrático.
“That was hard for newcomers to relate that Trump is a Republican and DeSantis is also a Republican,” Rivera says, referring to the then-candidate, now-governor Ron DeSantis.
What’s more, the one issue on which both Scott and DeSantis broke with Trump was Puerto Rico. When Trump falsely accused Democrats of inventing the 3,000-person death toll, even DeSantis, whose entire campaign was built on his unabashed support for the president, released a statement saying he disagreed.
And Scott, who had actively engaged with the Puerto Rican community since his first run for governor, made his support for Puerto Rico and its residents well known, visiting the island seven times between Maria’s landfall and Election Day. Indeed, that effort likely made the difference in the outcome. Scott received 3,271 more votes than DeSantis did in heavily Puerto Rican Osceola County. Scott’s margin of victory over Nelson statewide was only 10,033 votes.
“They made a bet that they could win if they could boost their Hispanic numbers,” Amandi says. “It was a bet that paid off.”
A lot of people sat out because they thought their vote didn’t matter. Alex Barrio, political director for Alianza for Progress
In theory, Democrats should have a significantly easier time energizing Puerto Rican voters against Trump next year than they did against his allies last year.
First, there will be no need to make a connection between him and a political party they may be unfamiliar with. Trump’s name will be on the ballot ― at the very top, in fact. Indeed, Trump will not be sharing that ballot with any statewide Republican officials. DeSantis’ term is not over until 2022, and neither of Florida’s two Senate seats is up next year.
Further, Maria victims will not be in the frantic first months following their departures from the island, and will have had a full two years to get their Florida lives in order.
But Dominguez, the restaurateur, says that Democrats who want to defeat Trump will first have to overcome political apathy shared by too many Puerto Rican migrants to the mainland.
“Mainly the people that come here are already sick of the politicking in Puerto Rico, that they cannot change nothing even if they vote or whatever,” he says. “We need to educate them that, here, they are a power if they vote.”
Barrio says that organizers could even use the narrowness of last year’s races in Florida ― DeSantis only defeated Gillum by 32,463 votes, out of more than 8 million cast ― in their sales pitch. “A lot of people sat out because they thought their vote didn’t matter,” he says. “Maybe now they see how much every vote counts.”
He adds that just because Trump is unpopular doesn’t mean people will come out to vote against him. “Whether that antipathy translates to votes a year from now remains to be seen. It’s going to require work.”
And, of course, while Trump is indeed unpopular among Puerto Ricans, not everyone in that community opposes him.
“He is a moral person, because he doesn’t kill babies,” says Jazbyl Rosa, the owner of an alterations shop in Kissimmee who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived on the mainland for all but three of her 68 years. “He ain’t perfect. We ain’t either.”
She doubts Trump’s attacks on Puerto Rican leaders will backfire because voters know he is right, she says. “I’m Puerto Rican. But I know they’re not doing things right in Puerto Rico. We need to investigate what’s going on. They want to waste money on stupid things.”
Wanda Cartagena, a retired office manager for a mortgage company and also a Puerto Rican native, says Trump’s comments about Hurricane Maria assistance are just “drama” and that eventually the island will get more help. “He likes to bark, but he’s going to end it all doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” she says.
And if Trump keeps his word and ends disaster assistance to the island?
“If they get cut off, they’ve got to learn how to survive,” she says. “Like we do here.”
Unlike Bryant and so many other Democratic-inclined Puerto Ricans in Florida, Cartagena is a registered Republican. And she votes, she says, in every election.